History-making trans rabbi wants young people to find joy and ‘spiritual connection’

Trans, non-binary rabbi Elliot Kukla wears a red shirt and brown coat as he stands outside near some trees

When he came out during his rabbinical studies, Elliot Kukla was told he would “never get a job as a rabbi”. Now, as a spiritual leader, he wants trans and non-binary youth to feel the same joy and ‘spiritual connection’ to their identities as he did.

Back in 2006, Kukla went down in history as the first openly trans person to be ordained by a mainstream denomination – the Reform Seminary, Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. 

Kukla came out as trans just a few months before his ordination, and he tells PinkNews that his journey of faith made it “impossible for [him] to not become [his] full self”. 

“Those two truths were fully connected for me; the spiritual wholeness of being trans was very connected for me to being a rabbi,” he says. “I was writing my senior rabbinic thesis on the ‘tumtum’ and the ‘androgynos’, which are these non-binary characters in ancient Jewish holy texts.” 

“I had been studying them for many years and looking at all of the different references in Jewish holy texts to characters who are beyond male and female. 

“And it was through this deep study that this recognition of seeing myself in these texts from 2,000 years ago became undeniable, and it became clear that I had to be ordained as my full self.”

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Kukla says it “always felt right” coming into their identity, and they feel there’s always been immense joy and “spiritual truths connected to trans identity”. 

When they were first ordained, Kukla felt like trans people were “treated as something of a fringe issue”, a “laughing stock” and the “butt of jokes”. The trans rabbi was even told they would “never find work as a rabbi” because of their identity. 

But he says there’s been a “huge transition” in the 17 years since he was ordained, and he’s now hearing from rabbis worldwide asking for resources on how to “celebrate a non-binary b’nei mitzvah” in their synagogues. 

While he’s witnessed the growing acceptance of trans identities in the Jewish world, the trans, non-binary says there’s been “enormous backlash” more broadly, leaving trans and queer youth vulnerable. 

In the US, trans rights have been at the epicentre of a media firestorm and political outrage for several years. Anti-LGBTQ+ pundits and politicians have attacked everything from access to gender-affirming healthcare to discussions of trans identities in schools, and using certain bathrooms to inclusive books

This backlash has had real-world consequences on queer and trans youth. 

Nearly one in three queer youth reported that their mental health was poor always or most of the time due to hateful anti-LGBTQ+ policies and legislation, according to The Trevor Project’s 2023 national survey on the mental health of LGBTQ young people

Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of LGBTQ+ young people said they’d been physically threatened or harmed in the past year due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sadly, 27 per cent of trans and non-binary youth reported receiving physical threats or being harmed in the same period due to their gender identity. 

‘I feel so excited about what trans and non-binary youth are doing at this moment’

Elliot Kukla says they love being trans and non-binary, and they wouldn’t “trade it for the world”. Being trans was this “huge moment of choosing to be me”, which they hope all young people – including the ones they work with – can have that same joy.

“I have this resource to support younger people in being exactly who they are – even if I don’t recognise or understand who they are.

“I don’t have to because I had that experience of knowing how much more joyful it is to live as the full version of myself, and that includes even people who aren’t necessarily trans,” Kukla says. 

“One of the joys of living in this moment is seeing the expansion of identity. I feel so excited about what trans and non-binary youth are doing.”

“In a world where trans kids are under attack,” he continues, “I’m surrounded by so many trans kids who are living this life that I couldn’t have imagined growing up as a closeted trans kid, who are able to just really be themselves from the beginning – which is just a mind-blowing thing to imagine. 

“The kids in my life who are able to just really not have a binary gender idea, and there are so many possibilities that come from that.”